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Horizon League Power Rankings: Who is on top as conference play begins?

Valpo’s lead is shrinking; Wright State makes a move

NCAA Basketball: Wright State at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Horizon League play begins on Thursday night with a slate of four games. After a week that saw Valparaiso upset at home and Oakland pick up its first quality win, the outlook for conference play is a little less clear.

Here is how things stand heading into conference play:

Power Rankings

1. Valparaiso Crusaders (9-3, Previous: 1)

Last Week: Loss vs. Santa Clara

This Week: 12/28 vs. Chicago State; 12/30 @ Illinois Chicago

Last week I started off the power rankings by saying “Valparaiso appears to be firmly entrenched in the top spot.” One week later nothing could be further from that. The Crusaders hosted Santa Clara and took a bad loss in double overtime. This proved that this year’s Valpo squad could be beaten at home by an opponent with a hot shooting night. The Crusaders’ overall body of work thus far keeps them in the top spot, but confidence has been shaken. They will try to rebound with one last non-conference game against Chicago State before heading to UIC on Friday.

2. Oakland Golden Grizzlies (10-3, Previous: 2)

Last Week: Loss vs. Northeastern, Loss @ Michigan State, Win vs. Georgia

This Week: 12/29 vs. Wright State, 12/31 vs. Northern Kentucky

Oakland’s win over Georgia to proved the Golden Grizzlies could beat a quality opponent. Led by 30 points from Martez Walker, Oakland overcame an early double digit deficit. Had they managed to also pick up a win against Northeastern and/or Michigan State, the Golden Grizzlies would have a more legitimate claim to the number one spot. The win against Georgia is now the conference’s second best KenPom victory, and Oakland’s only win over a team rated better than 200. Therefore, they remain below Valpo for now, but appear to much more of a threat. Oakland has a challenging start to conference play against Wright State and Northern Kentucky, but both games are at home.

3. Wright State Raiders (9-4, Previous: 4)

Last Week: Win @ Murray State

This Week: 12/29 @ Oakland, 12/31 @ Detroit

Wright State vaults into the third spot after a strong road win against Murray State. Steven Davis has, somewhat unexpectedly, become an impact player for the Raiders. He’s now scored 20 or more points four times this season, including at Murray State. Wright State was able to pick up solid wins both at home and on the road during non-conference play but their conference opener at Oakland will be their biggest test yet. The Raiders should be able to handle business against the lower half of the conference, but a win over Oakland would set them up as a true contender.

4. Northern Kentucky Norse (9-4, Previous: 3)

Last Week: Win vs. Brescia, Loss @ West Virginia

This Week: 12/29 @ Detroit, 12/31 @ Oakland

Northern Kentucky drops a spot this week after splitting two games. A road loss to West Virginia is nothing to be ashamed of but the quality of Wright State’s wins resulted in the drop for NKU. The Norse have not won against an opponent currently rated better than 217 in the KenPom rankings. The good news for NKU is that five of their conference-mates are currently rated worse than that, so they should be able to remain competitive in conference play. Like Wright State, the Norse also get a shot at Oakland on opening weekend, a game which could be a good barometer for NKU.

5. Green Bay Phoenix (6-6, Previous: 5)

Last Week: Win vs. SIU Edwardsville, Win vs. St. Mary’s (MN)

This Week: 12/29 @ Cleveland State, 12/31 @ Youngstown State

Green Bay remains at number five after a two win week. The Phoenix were unimpressive in an overtime win against SIU Edwardsville, and then dominated a non-Div. I opponent. But, the wins pull Green Bay to .500 heading into conference play. This team was expected to compete for the conference title and hasn’t looked the part thus far. However, the Phoenix appear to have found a weapon in Kerem Kanter, who has tallied the five best scoring games of his career in the team’s past five games. Kanter could be the key for Green Bay as they enter conference play on the road in Northeast Ohio this weekend.

6. Illinois Chicago Flames (7-6, Previous: 7)

Last Week: Win vs. Northern Arizona, Win vs. Roosevelt

This Week: 12/30 vs. Valparaiso

UIC lost Dikembe Dixson for the season, but the Flames are proving they can win without him. Tai Odiase and Godwin Boahen are among the players stepping up in Dixson’s absence. The Flames are definitely not a better team without Dixson, but they have been playing better basketball of late. They will try to ride some of their recent momentum into their conference opener. The Flames play host to Valpo in their lone game this week. UIC still has the potential to play with the upper echelon of the conference, but it remains to be seen how far they can go without their star.

7. Youngstown State Penguins (6-7, Previous: 6)

Last Week: Loss @ Ohio State

This Week: 12/29 vs. Milwaukee, 12/31 vs. Green Bay

Youngstown State struggled in a road loss to Ohio State last week. The Penguins only mustered 14 points in the first half en route to just 40 for the game. That’s a recipe for disaster for a team completely reliant on its offense to win games. YSU will need to get that offense back on track when it hosts the conference’s two Wisconsin schools on opening weekend. Cameron Morse will hope to follow up his performance at home against Green Bay last year, when he scored a career high 44 points.

8. Cleveland State Vikings (4-8, Previous: 9)

Last Week: Win vs. Lake Erie, Loss @ Belmont

This Week: 12/29 vs. Green Bay, 12/31 vs. Milwaukee

You could argue that Cleveland State has been predictable through non-conference play. The Vikings had four home games on the schedule and won all four. Meanwhile, they lost all eight games they played away from the Wolstein Center, most recently losing to Belmont. CSU will hope to continue that predictable play this weekend when they host Green Bay and Milwaukee. The Vikings likely aren’t much of a threat in conference play, but they can clearly protect their home floor which could be cause for concern among the rest of the league.

9. Milwaukee Panthers (4-9, Previous: 8)

Last Week: Loss vs. Belmont

This Week: 12/29 @ Youngstown State, 12/31 @ Cleveland State

Milwaukee continues to fall in these rankings, having lost four in a row. The bad news for them heading into opening weekend of conference play is that they have to play on the road. It could be difficult to snap their recent cold spell away from home. The good news is that they are playing two of the conference’s weaker teams. Like Cleveland State, Milwaukee probably isn’t going to factor in to the conference title race. But they can pull themselves out of the lowest level of the conference standings with wins against teams like they play this weekend.

10. Detroit Titans (2-10, Previous: 10)

Last Week: Loss vs. Fort Wayne

This Week: 12/29 vs. Northern Kentucky, 12/31 vs. Wright State

Despite the loss last week, Detroit is finally starting to play better basketball. They stayed competitive with a very good Fort Wayne team and got a 33-point performance from Corey Allen. Unfortunately, the Titans get a tough draw to start conference play hosting Northern Kentucky followed by Wright State. Detroit could be more competitive in conference play than their non-conference record would suggest, but opening weekend may not be kind to them.